Over the last few weeks we have been following a dual track. On the one hand, we have considered the history and politics of some of Europe’s individual states. On the other hand, we have put these histories into broader contexts, considering the effect of forces such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, as well as the group of “isms” that came out of the post-revolutionary period. In this lecture, I also want to broaden our perspective, but with reference to international relations. Although individuals played an important role in international relations throughout the nineteenth century, with people such as Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, Benjamin Disraeli, and Napoleon III setting the agenda, their decisions were shaped by problems created by the competition among states for influence, a competition that dated back to the fifteenth century. Thus, World War I’s outbreak in the summer of 1914 may have been due in part to diplomatic blundering, but that the resulting conflagration was so large and lasted so long was a product of the vicious, long-term battle between European states for world preeminence. In this lecture I want to trace how that longer battle was fought and who the major actors were.
I begin by discussing international relations in the sixteenth century. You are already familiar with my way of describing the international scene in accord with “problems.” Thus, as I have already discussed, during the nineteenth century France was one of Europe’s major problems. What was one to do, after all, with a country that between 1789 and 1870 had repeatedly exported revolution and war to the rest of the Continent? After 1870, of course, the central “problem” became Germany. Things were different in the sixteenth century. For one thing, different players were in the game. Germany did not exist as a state, and England, France, Spain, and Austria were the only real players. During the sixteenth century the central problem was Spain. Spain had emerged from the reconquista of the fifteenth century as a powerful, aggressive state bent on domination. By 1492, when Granada the last of the Islamic states on the Iberian Peninsula fell, Spain’s monarchs had a good deal of expertise in taxing and fighting. Moreover, the union of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile through the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469 created a large, centralized state that was ready to make mischief on the world stage. When Spain’s destiny became entwined with the dynastic ambitions of the Habsburgs, Europe was destined for multiple wars.
You already know where Spain made much of its mischief, namely in the New World. Spain’s colonial empire in North and South America was crucial to European politics, because the silver that it extracted from there financed a series of wars against other European states. In 1495, Spain joined with England to invade Italy in the name of booting out the French, who had invaded the year before. In 1503, they took Naples, which they kept for two centuries, part of a long trend of outside interference in the Italian peninsula that not only dated back to eighth century but would also continue until 1870. In 1588, Spain tried to invade England, but its fleet was destroyed by better British seamanship and the Atlantic’s treacherous weather. And then there was the problem of the Habsburg inheritance. Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria had aggrandized Austria through a shrewd, if lucky, marriage policy. One of his marriage bets paid off in the acquisition of the area that is now Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Later, another of his bets paid off handsomely, bringing the Spanish throne into the Habsburg fold. Thus, it was that in 1516 Maximilian’s grandson Charles not only came to the Spanish throne but also into possession of what would be called the Spanish Netherlands.
Charles V’s rise to power offers an opportunity to consider two factors that would be important for the course of the seventeenth century. The first was religious conflict. Martin Luther got things off to a roaring start in 1517 by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. Luther was saved from martyrdom by German politics, as Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony locked him in a castle, thus allowing Luther to become the first successful heretic since Jesus of Nazareth. The resulting religious ferment upset Europe’s political balance, which resulted in a series of wars. This leads us to the second factor. One of the most important of the sixteenth century wars was the Dutch Revolt of 1567-1579, in which the Dutch gained their independence from the Spanish crown. During the sixteenth century the Dutch had become Calvinists. Spanish religious oppression and high taxes led the Dutch to revolt against their prince and found a republic. This is important, since the Netherlands was a densely populated area that was heavily invested in Atlantic trade. As the Dutch got rich, they also got belligerent, going to war not only against Spain but also Portugal, and all in the name of commerce. Thus, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had become a major player in the great race for colonial and mercantile advantage.
As we enter the seventeenth century, we have six major players in the European state system: France, Spain, England, Austria, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden. England, for its part, had had more than its share of problems through the fifteenth centuries. First, the French booted them out of northern France in 1443. Second, during the late fifteenth century civil war broke out, the so-called War of the Roses, which began in 1455 and ended only in 1485. It was only with the accession to the English throne of Henry VIII (1491-1547; r. 1509) that the English could project power outside their borders. They began in the sixteenth century by joining the Spanish invasion of Italy, but with the coming of the Reformation in the 1530s the English left the catholic fold and increasingly saw their interests in aligning themselves with the Dutch. Phillip II’s attempted invasion of England was, in part, a response to English aid to the Dutch during the latter’s revolt. However, during the seventeenth century, the English became much more aggressive. As we have already discussed, growing English interest in commerce led them fight three wars with the Dutch during the seventeenth century. And by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the English were the preeminent mercantile power in Europe.
The French had been on the rise even since the end of the Hundred Year’s War (1337-1453). In 1477, they took the lower half of Burgundy from the Habsburgs. In 1494, they invaded northern Italy. During the sixteenth century they set their sights on Germany, occupying key cities in Lorraine in 1552. France’s true rise to prominence came, however, in the sixteenth century with the reigns of Louis XIII (1601-43; r.1610) and Louis XIV (1638-1715; r.1643). Under Louis XIII’s chief minister Cardinal Richelieu, France became involved in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), seeking to harm the Catholic Habsburgs by fighting on the side of Germany’s Protestants. (I note parenthetically here that the Thirty Years’ War saw the rise and fall of Sweden, particularly under their Great King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632; r. 1611). Adolphus led Sweden into the war in defense of Protestantism, but after his death it became clear that Sweden did not have the means to maintain a belligerent foreign policy. The issue would be decided, in the end, by Russia’s arrival.) Nonetheless, now I must return to France. During Louis XIV’s reign France went on the offensive, attacking the Spanish (1648-59) and the Dutch (1672-78), before becoming involved in the Nine Years’ War with the English, Dutch, and Austrians from (1688-1697), and then facing the same coalition in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713/14). Louis XIV’s reign changed the strategic situation in Europe. From this point forth the English, Dutch, and Austrians would forever be looking for ways to control France. The fundamental problem was that France was the most populous country in Europe, having 20 million people during Louis XIV’s reign, and its economy was very productive. Thus, right through Napoleon’s time, France was so powerful that it always threatened Europe with expansionism.
By the start of the eighteenth century, the European system had lost three major players and gained two. The English, French, and Austrians persisted, while Spanish, the Dutch, and the Swedes exited the first rank. In exchange, Europe saw the rise of the Russians and the Prussians. The French broke Spain with the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, which came at the end of a war that had been going on since 1648. Spain remained an important European power until the War of the Spanish Succession, but after the other powers dismantled Spain’s overseas empire its time on the European stage was over. The Swedes were already overextended in the Thirty Years’ War, but with the Great Northern War (1700-21) they were finally excused from the first rank of powers by the sleeping giant in the east Russia. Russia had made great strides under its reforming Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725; r. 1696) who moved the capital to St. Petersburg, reformed the Russian army and built the navy. By the end of Peter’s reign, and with the victory over the Swedes, Russia was the preeminent power in the Baltic. It would also become the preeminent power in the Balkans under Catherine II (1729-1796; r. 1762). The Dutch were also excused from the first rank by their wars against the English and the French. By the eighteenth century they were essentially a prosperous English satellite. There is also one other thing that we must take not of, however. By the end of the seventeenth century, religion had ceased to be a major cause for war. France’s cynical support for Protestant German powers in the Thirty Years’ War against its co-religionists in Austria was already a signal that things had changed. In 1697, when Louis XIV officially recognized the accession of William III and Mary II to the English throne, religious matters had been excreted from power politics. For better or worse, all wars would now be fought for reasons of state.
We have already discussed the rise of Prussia in the eighteenth century. Frederick II’s Machiavellian attack on Austria in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and his good fortune in surviving the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) meant that Prussia became a power of the first rank, if only barely. Until well into the nineteenth century, Prussia was the one great power that could have been dissolved by a single military defeat, so it was understandable that Europe’s powers tended to be more worried that Austria would dominate Germany. The rise of Prussia signaled, however, two things. First, an important parting of the ways occurred on the Continent. From this point forth Europe was divided into two spheres: a western sphere dominated by England and France, and an eastern one dominated by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795 were a clear signal that the west had little say about affairs in the east. Second, Austria now had legitimate competition for leadership in the German sphere. That Prussia won this battle would have important consequences for all of Europe. We will talk more about those in a moment.
We have already discussed the French Revolution and Napoleon in detail in another lecture, so I will pass over these events and limit my comments to their broad implications. First, with Napoleon’s “final” defeat at Waterloo, it became clear that Europe would now be dominated by the two powers no one could hope to defeat, Britain and Russia. Britain’s navy made it invulnerable to invasion, and Russia’s eternal steppe made any invasion pointless. These two powers, in particular, oversaw Europe and tried to ensure that the French did not stir up trouble again. It took a long time before anyone could forget the 15 years of war and four coalitions that had been necessary to defeat Napoleon.
This desire to keep the French in a box is the real foundation of the second implication to which I just alluded, the birth of the Congress System. Led by Austria, the so-called Concert of Europe tried to maintain the peace on the Continent by developing a system of obligations and rights that bound the various powers into the system. This concert included Britain, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia. As you know, the Congress system was not a restoration, since many of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic changes persisted. This may be the reason why the new system managed to keep the peace, in spite of series of crises that could have ignited a major war. In 1820-1, there were revolts in Spain, Naples and Piedmont. In 1821-5, there was a revolt in Greece against the Ottoman Empire. In the 1810s and 20s a host of Spanish colonies revolted against their imperial overseers. In 1826-29, there was a crisis over a Russo-Turkish war that the Turks had lost badly. In the 1830s there were revolutions in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Poland. In 1832-41, there was another Near Eastern Crisis, in which the Concert of Europe actually propped up the Ottomans.
Here I need to make two points. First, the rise of the eastern powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) sucked the Ottomans into the European system. The Ottoman Empire originated in the thirteenth century, and had been a menace to Austria since the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, however, it was clearly decaying and this became a problem, since both Austria and Russia wanted to aggrandize themselves at the Ottomans’ expense. This was a problem for every other power in Europe, but especially for the British, who did not want the Austrians and Russians to compete with them in the Mediterranean. Second, although the British theoretically pulled out of the Congress System in 1828, the habits and beliefs that coalesced after 1815 persisted right until 1914. That is, the great powers always feared a major war and strove to avoid one through the deft, and sometimes amoral, use of diplomacy. The belief was that a major conference was preferable to war. Things did not always work out that way, there was a major war in 1853, but given Europe’s history of incessant warfare during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was not a bad record at all.
The Congress System dissolved in the end, and here I want to pursue three reasons why. The first reason is the rise of nationalism. Between 1848 and 1861, as we have seen, nationalist movements appeared across Europe, and this allowed certain opportunistic leaders to undermine the stability of the European system. A good example is Napoleon III, whom we have already discussed. Napoleon’s behavior toward Italy and Austria was a major factor in diminishing other power’s interests in maintaining the status quo. Second, is the Crimean War (1853-56). Napoleon III was in the thick of this situation, virtually assuring that a war would come. Napoleon wanted to break the Austro-Russian alliance that both parties had developed in the Congress of Vienna’s wake, so he risked a major crisis in order to gamble on a diplomatic triumph. The Turks, for their part, were sick of the Russians attacking them every few years. Russian aggression began under Fyodor III in 1676 and continued under every subsequent Czar, ending only in 1878. The British, in turn, were unclear on what their goals were in the area, having no clue beyond the certain belief that the Russian could not have control of the Black Sea. In the end, the Turks declared war on Russia, followed by France and Britain. Austria, in spite of being pledged to help Russia remained the sidelines, refusing to join either side. The fighting was inconclusive, though the Russians suffered a humiliating diplomatic defeat at the peace conference in Paris.
This war had important long-term consequences. First, the Russians were angry and accelerated their process of financial and military reforms, which merely increased the competition within Europe. Second, the French were seen as meddlesome and, therefore, unworthy of support. Third, the Austrians came to be viewed as untrustworthy. Third, the British were so embarrassed by their abysmal performance that they reached a political consensus on the absolute need to fund their Navy. Finally, the mistrust and bitterness the war created left an opening for Prussia and Sardinia-Piedmont. Both Italian and German unifications were products of the major shock to the Congress System caused by the Crimean War.
This leads me to the third reason for the Congress System’s decline and fall, the rise of Imperial Germany. In 1862, Otto von Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia. As you know from the lecture on German unification, Bismarck used every diplomatic opportunity placed before him to unify Germany on Prussia’s terms. I won’t go into the details of this process, since you already know them. What I want to discuss here is the basic instability that a powerful state in the middle of Europe created for the old Congress System. German unification changed the strategic landscape. Britain now had a competitor on the open ocean, which it could not tolerate. France was, of course, very unhappy, since a larger, more powerful army sat next door. It is true that the French wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, but the deeper problem vis-à-vis Germany was that they had no hope of defeating the Germans in a fair fight. Germany was Europe’s most populous state and had its most powerful and dynamic economy. Let me give you one example: in 1890 Germany’s second largest coalfield, in Silesia, outproduced the entire French coal industry. This meant that the French could only find security in alliances, which they sought assiduously. A measure of just how threatening the new Germany was is that the French and the Brits, historically mortal enemies, signed an alliance in 1904, the so-called Entente Cordiale. The Austrians were still a formidable state, but they were in reality a German appendage, which meant that they had no real diplomatic freedom. The end result of Austria’s weakness was the defensive alliance between Germany and Austria in 1879. The battle lines of 1914 were already drawn in the late nineteenth century.
Now we are in a position to understand both the genius and the folly of Bismarck’s new state. Bismarck understood that Europe was fast becoming a pressure cooker, so he constantly tried to divert Europe’s energies to peripheral regions, such as Africa and the Balkans. Two congresses are important examples here: the first is the Berlin Congress of 1878, which revised a Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and Turkey over their final war for the Balkans. Basically, Bismarck forced the Russians to give some territory back to the Turks so that the British and the Austrians would be happy. The next was the Berlin West Africa Congress of 1884-5. This Congress met to decide the fate of the Congo. Portugal had claimed rights to the Congo River estuary, but the Congress declared it a free navigation zone, largely to keep the British and French happy. You will recall that the Scramble for Africa began in officially in 1881 with the French invasion of Tunisia. What I should like to note here is that the French received a good deal of encouragement in their antics from one Otto von Bismarck. And his later efforts to regulate the competition in Africa were a continued recognition of the need to keep Europe looking to other parts of the globe.
So Germany was now the center of European diplomacy. But a long-term problem ran through all of Bismarck’s maneuvers: the Congress System had been replaced by a rapacious competition for territory in Africa and the Balkans. As you well know, eventually the territory available for plunder had to run out, and then the old tensions would return to Europe with a vengeance. A terrible war was, thus, inevitable, and its outbreak was only a matter of when. In 1890, William II fired Bismarck, declaring his intention to rule, rather than merely to reign, unwittingly bringing a final military conflict that much closer. A worse turn of events could hardly be imagined. William II was full of bluster and rapidly became the Napoleon III of his day. Whereas Bismarck tried to avoid war and maintain Germany’s gains through a policy of limited aims, William II was only out for the next diplomatic triumph. We won’t go into the details here, but the point is that suddenly German foreign policy became a source of instability in Europe. With Germany no longer playing the cautious arbiter, Europe’s descent into a system of mutually hostile alliances was predictable. It is in this context that a ridiculously small event such as the assassination of Austria’s heir apparent, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, could have sparked a European war. How that came about is a topic for another day.